Dan Hon trained a neural net to generate British place names, there are some predictably funny results (oh hai Fuckley), but if you look at the long list you get everything from incomprehensible nonsense to actual place names. Between those two extremes you have a range of names of varying plausibility so let’s look at some and work out what they would mean.

Dan generated around 4500 names so we’ll be here for a while if we take them one by one, but there are ways we can segment the data, the simplest is to look for common place name components, e.g. -ton, -cester, bridge, hill, -comb(e), llan, punctuation. These are common in actual place names so we’d expect them to occur here, and we know what they mean which is, you know, what I’m trying to figure out.

(Pt 2 here)


Ok. I’m expecting a lot of these. Yep, 748, around 15% of our sample. Err… we’ll come back to this.

-cester, -caster, -chester

This is more like it. Aside: derivations of ceastre/ceaster crop up a fair bit in British place names, often in larger towns as it comes from the Roman castrum meaning fort. And many places the Romans built forts we still have towns and cities (Manchester, Doncaster, Casterly Rock etc).

Buncestergans. At first glance this doesn’t look a lot like a place name but let’s break it down. We’ve got Bun which is definitely from Ireland (see Bunratty, Bunclody, Bundoran) meaning bottom of the river, and I believe we’re talking bottom as in the mouth rather than the riverbed (or there are whole lot of magical lady-of-the-lake towns in Ireland, I’m happy believing either). Cester is our Roman fort, then we have -gans.

I don’t think gans has any meaning in British place names. My guess is the net got this from Irish surnames like Fagans, Hagans, Duggans, that sort of thing. My Gaelic’s not so great (my mother, grandmother, and several aunts and uncles would all be better suited to this question!) but I think the -gan ending in Gaelic is a diminuitive, so Buncestergans could be the Small Fort at the Bottom of the River. I quite like that. It’s a weird Gaelic-Latin hybrid but why the hell not!

Elsewhere in ceastre territory we have Tancaster and Casterstone which are both perfectly good. Casterstone is strong: the ‘Fort of Stone’.

Kesterfield gets an honourable mention for being almost Chesterfield (check out the twisted spire!).

I like to think Nether Curster could be a derivation of Caster. The Lower Fort. That works for me.

Skousester could be Liverpool (though I’m pretty sure the nearest Roman fort to Liverpool was Chester, and Scouse postdates the Romans by some amount of time).

Then we have Oasasterhill. This is a funny looking beast. How would it be pronounced? I’d like to think it’s something like Oh-ster-hill or O-er-ster-hill (-cester is usually pronounced ‘ster’, for example Bicester is Bister, Towcester is Toaster, Gloucester is Glossed her etc.). Maybe it’s ‘The Town over the Fort Hill’? Bit tenuous methinks. (Aside: to my knowledge -sester and -saster don’t occur in any British place names as equivalents to -cester but for the purposes of this exercise it seems to make the most sense.)

This is fun.

Will we unlock the secrets of all 4573 place names? Find out in our next instalment!

But realistically, no. Can you even imagine how long that would take? And one of these names is Warks ifffrydddig Villags, which I’m pretty sure is just trying to troll Welsh speakers, grammarians, and anyone who’s seen the word village. Another’s just the word Ba.  Ba. So, er, yeah. Not all of them – but a bunch!